Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Love-Hate Relationship

First things first: thank goodness for McDonald's!  Before I write a single word about China and the Winter Wonderland that is Harbin, I have to confess that I ate at Maccas.  A lot.  Probably more than I have at any point since Cairo, and that was mostly because of the touch of a travel bug.  This time, I have no excuse.  The best one I can come up with was that it was Chinese New Year's eve when I got there, and nothing else was open.  But it didn't stop there.  Oh, no.  I had it for breakfast every morning, and for dinner every night.  Don't judge - I've been living in Mongolia for seven months now!!!
So, moving right along...
As I mentioned in my last post, I decided to spend my time off for Tsagaan Sar in Harbin, China.  I didn't think about it being Chinese New Year then, because everyone kept telling me they're never at the same time.  When I started seeing all my friends in Shanghers posting about their holidays, I figured it out, and got excited.  Nobody, but NOBODY does fireworks like the Chinese, and at no time is this as apparent as at Chinese New Year.  Dammit, I missed the place, although this trip made me realize exactly how much of a love-hate relationship I have with it.  I missed speaking the language (I still don't know much Mongolian, although I could still probably manage to order my father a beer).  I missed the stupid fast food, and dumplings and OH MY GOSH IS THAT A CARREFOUR?!?  I knew I'd miss things even as I was struggling to make my decision last year.  There were also things I definitely DIDN'T miss, but we'll come to those later.  My trip started off on such a great note (other than the taxi driver trying to rip me off on the way in from the airport) that I'm not quite ready to get negative. 

After finding the Macca's I started wandering up the main pedestrian thoroughfare in old Harbin.  It's a city with ties to Mother Russia, as you may pick up on from some of my photos.  During the day, it's nice, and you can read the plaques on the buildings (some of them beginning to crack with disrepair) to see who lived there, or what kind of building it was.  At night, it's pure magic, especially with the ice sculptures all lit up, like they are above.  That first night I was wandering with my camera, trying to take shots of fireworks, and I figured up to the river was the place to go.  I slid my way up the street...and I DO mean slipped.  I wanted to see if I actually needed my crampons before I put them on.  I did.  It was nerve-wracking.  I've fallen on my butt lots of times, but the expensive and shiny new camera around my neck might not be as durable as I am.  When I got up to the Flood Control monument there were people there SELLING SKY LANTERNS!!!!!  I've been obsessed with the dang things since watching Tangled and finding out they were real, and I finally got the chance to set one off.  Of course, being an idiot foreigner I had no idea what I was doing, but this sweet kid was kind enough to help me out, and we had a moment when it went soaring off where we high-fived and I said, "Hen hao!  Xie xie!" and she said, "Bu ke xie!" and I said, "Xin nian kuai le!" and she said, "Happy New Year!"  Some things are awesome in any language.

The old area of town sort of became my stomping grounds for the long weekend.  I logged a lot of footsteps over the four days - enough to make my feet ache and to convince me that I didn't need to go to the treadmill this morning (I probably wouldn't have made it if I wanted to).  Along one of the nearby streets I stumbled upon the old synagogue and Jewish school.  It seemed strange to me that a city which was so far from the middle of everywhere would, nevertheless, have such a cosmopolitan air.  I guess that's the Russian influence.  Shanghai, of course, is fairly cosmopolitan, but the Harbin...ers?  Harbinites?  Harbingers?  Whatever.  Their city had a nice feel to it.  Or, you know, as nice a feel as it can have, considering how freaking cold it was.  And it was.

I've got to say, I needed this break like a caffeine addict needs her coke.  It was good to get away, even if I'm REALLY tired today, but even more, I needed the chance to get out alone and prove myself against a new city...I haven't done that since last summer.  Seeing new things is fun, but the real thrill is proving to yourself that you are clever and observant enough to cope when you're by yourself.

I live for that shit.

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